Godard's first feature-length film is one of the inaugural films of the French New Wave. He wrote it with fellow New Wave director, François Truffaut, and released it the year after Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Together the three films brought international acclaim to the New Wave.
Breathless shocked contemporary audiences with its bold visual style and editing—much of which broke the rules of classical Hollywood cinema. Most notable of its innovations were jolting jump cuts, the hand-held camera, and the fresh tale of modern, urban life.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young thug who models himself after Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car, Michel shoots a policeman who has followed him onto a country road. Penniless and on the run from the police, he turns to his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris. The ambivalent Patricia unwittingly hides him while they dally in her apartment as he simultaneously tries to seduce her and call in a loan to fund their escape to Italy. At one point, Patricia says she is pregnant with Michel's child. She learns that Michel is on the run when questioned by the police. Eventually, she betrays him, but before the police arrive, she tells Michel what she did. He is somewhat resigned to a life in prison, and doesn't try to escape at first. They shoot him in the street and, after a protracted death run, he dies.
Michel's death scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the film, but the film's final lines of dialogue are the source of some confusion for English-speaking audiences. In some translations, it is unclear whether Michel is condemning Patricia, or alternatively condemning the world in general.
As Patricia and Detective Vital catch up with the dying Michel, there is the following exchange, according to the transcript published in Dudley Andrew's book on the film:
MICHEL: C'est vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce qu'il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes "une dégueulasse".
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce que c'est "dégueulasse"?
In his book, Andrew translates the dialogue thus:
MICHEL: That's really disgusting.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, "You are really a bitch."
PATRICIA: What is "déguelasse" [bitch]?
Andrew's translation obscures the point of the original French, which is that policeman Vital misquotes Michel. This could either be bad intention or due to a mishearing on part of Vital. A mishearing could stem in part from the similarity between Michel's first word, "C'est" (It is/That is) and the word "T'es" (You are), which are hard to distinguish audibly. In this case, it could also stem from the ambiguity of the word "dégueulasse", which can either be an adjective ("disgusting"), or a noun ("disgusting thing", rendered as 'bitch' by Andrew); however, even "vous êtes vraiment dégueulasse" (you are really disgusting) would have had the same meaning, without any change of adjective and noun. By hearing "T'es", Vital may understand Michel's line as a condemnation of Patricia, but if, in fact, Michel says "C'est", he could be referring to his situation in general, and not specifically blaming Patricia.
Other translations have made Vital's misquotation more obvious. In the English captioning of the 2001 Fox-Lorber Region One DVD, "déguelasse" is translated as "scumbag", producing the following dialogue:
MICHEL: It's a real scumbag.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, "You're a real scumbag".
PATRICIA: What's a scumbag?
The 2007 Criterion Collection Region One DVD uses a less literal translation that renders the French into a familiar American colloquialism:
MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What's that mean, "puke"?
Breathless makes numerous references to films. Michel's constant lip-rubbing is a direct homage to Humphrey Bogart, a poster of whom Michel gazes at in one scene and says, "Bogie". Bogart is referenced again when Patricia hides from a detective in the movie theatre: audio from The Maltese Falcon can be heard in the background. Moreover, Patricia comments on Michel's similarity to Bogart when she tells him that he is only an image and should say more about himself.
The film includes additional references to many other films. In one scene, "Bob Montagne" is mentioned, an apparent reference to the proto-New Wave film Bob le Flambeur (1955), the title character of which shares the same name. A few American film posters are seen in the streets, including Humphrey Bogart's The Harder They Fall and Ten Seconds to Hell with Jack Palance (who would later work with Godard on Contempt). Michel and Patricia also attend a screening of Budd Boetticher's Westbound and she sneaks into a theatre showing Preminger's film noir, Whirlpool (1949) with Gene Tierney.
The film also makes reference to Godard's work as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma: a woman (uncredited) attempts to sell a copy of Cahiers to Michel on the street, saying "Monsieur, do you support youth?" He angrily refuses, saying "No, I prefer the old."
The film A Woman Is a Woman, which was also directed by Godard and costars Belmondo, includes a reference to Breathless. At one point, Belmondo's character says he needs to get home because Breathless is being shown on TV.
A rarely seen 1976 film by Amos Poe, Unmade Beds, is an homage to and parody of Breathless.
An American remake of the same name was made in 1983, starring Richard Gere and Valérie Kaprisky, directed by Jim McBride. It is set in California, and the nationalities of the protagonists are swapped: the man is American and the woman is French.
In Noah Baumbach's 2005 film The Squid And The Whale, Jeff Daniels' character, Bernard, takes a fall on the street and recalls the last scene of the film to his wife, before being loaded into an ambulance.
In the Doctor Who Christmas special "Voyage of the Damned," The Doctor shouts "Allons-y, Alonso!" to Midshipman Alonso Frame as the Titanic plummets towards Earth.
The 2008 Bollywood movie "Jannat" is loosely based on Breathless.
Breathless has been available on DVD for several years in the English-speaking world, in editions distributed by Fox-Lorber in Region 1 and by Optimum Releasing in Region 2. In both of these releases, the film has a greenish tinge. This was removed for the Region 1 2-disc release by the Criterion Collection in 2007, which features a fully-restored image approved by director of photography, Raoul Coutard. The 2007 Criterion release is illegal for sale in Quebec, Canada because it falls under Bill 101's law that prohibits French films from being released with an English title. Criterion did not produce a French cover for the DVD release of Breathless.